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FInal Essay (excerpt from Portfolio)

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Gabriela Lomba Guzmán

EDUC225: Empowering Learners

Prof. Alice Lesnick

Final Essay



The beginning of this course presented some key questions on the meaning and importance of empowerment. Is “empower” a transitive verb? Meaning, can one empower another? Or is “empowered” a description of the learner, rather than something that is done to the learner? These nuanced questions allowed me to place myself at the crux of several essential issues of holistic learning. The word “empowerment” can be very tricky for reasons that Judi Chamberlin keenly notes in her article, “A Working Definition of Empowerment.” Chamberlin writes the following, “Nearly every kind of mental health program claims to "empower" its clients, yet in practice there have been few operational definitions of the term, and it is far from clear that programs that use the term are in any measurable way different from those that do not.” This is a perceptive criticism; there is no concrete definition for “empowerment” and this is problematic. I’m reminded of Bell Hooks’s All About Love. Hooks initially notes that the lack of a clear definition of love is a root problem to why love is such a difficult practice. Chapter one of All About Love reads, “Had I shared with others a common understanding of what it means to love it would have been easier to create love” (p. 11). I argue that this same complication occurs with “empowerment.” Establishing a clear definition is the first step towards creating an empowering environment.  

            Of course, establishing a clear definition is not simple. Throughout this course, I struggled (and I use this term to include both positive and negative connotations) with what empowerment truly meant. Chamberlin’s definition was a good starting off point. She proposes her working definition as a set of qualities, which include requirements such as: “Having decision making power” and “Having access to information and resources.” Chamberlin’s definition is nuanced, complex, demanding and yet completely and totally reasonable. While reading through the criteria, I noticed common themes. Her working definition dealt mostly with greater social issues, such as access, power, privilege, human rights, empathy, and so forth. Her definition worked quite well in conjunction to a Carolyn Heilburn quote shown in class, “Power is the ability to take one’s place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one’s part matter.” This then led to the creation of my own temporary definition of empowerment which was inextricably linked to social justice. I concluded that empowerment could not occur in a world that continued to disenfranchise marginalized groups that failed to fit into molds needed for the successful running of a capitalist society. In other words, to empower is in it of itself social work. As my experiences in this course grew, my definition shifted, but at this point, this is the definition I had. It particularly fit in well in the context of Eve Tuck’s writings: both “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities” and “A Glossary of Haunting.”

            Eve Tuck brings forth quite heavily the impact of a long history of racism, sexism, ableism, colonialism, and many other -isms that systemically disenfranchise particular populations. In her “Glossary of Haunting,” Tuck explores the idea that injustice and systemic oppression haunt us, similarly to how a ghost would. This means that in order to empower, these ghosts must be dealt with. As stated before, in order to empower, one must engage with the social issues that create disempowerment. Tuck’s “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities” proposes a way to deal with the injustices of the past. Tuck keenly proposes that we move past damage-centered research and move forward towards a desire-based framework. Tuck notes that it is essential to recognize the long term effects of seeing ourselves (and other marginalized communities) as broken. This damage-based research—Tuck argues while quoting Bell Hooks— “invites oppressed peoples to speak but to ‘only speak from that space in the margin that is a sign of derivative, a wound, an unfulfilled longing. Only speak your pain’” (qtd. in p. 413). The words are chilling. This then indicates that damage-based research goes directly against empowerment, especially if we are to use Chamberlin’s guidelines. By only allowing people to speak their pain, they are left bereft of a feeling that they can make a difference. They are also bereft of the ability to change people’s perceptions of their competency. Most importantly, they are robbed of their need to grow and change in a way that is continual and self-motivated. All of these are necessary for empowerment, according to Chamberlin’s guidelines—which I heavily agree with.

            This definition worked fine for me until I began working at my placement. Until that point, my definition of empowerment was large, systemic, institutional. It worked within a large framework in which the work done had to make great changes within the institutions of our society. I was not going to be able to do that while working at a placement. I then had to rework my definition for a smaller, yet just as important, framework. What does empowerment look like on the personal level? I’m brought back to the one of the earlier texts of this course, James Miller’s The Art of Being a Healing Presence. “Presence” works as a key word here. How can I use my presence in a way that acknowledges and respects the presence of others? While working at my placement, I came in with the mentality that I was there in help (in the most conventional way possible). This meant helping with tasks that required some dexterity and precision, since many of the adults at my placement have mobile or cognitive disabilities. About two thirds of the way into my placement, I broke my right thumb. I was no longer able to do the tasks I had been doing. In my mind, I believed that I could no longer help. I was no longer a “healing presence.” I soon realized that I was limiting my definition of what it meant to be a healing presence, and further more, an “empowering presence.”

            Looking unto Miller’s definition of a healing presence allowed me to complicate and expand my original interpretation. Miller defines it as such, “the condition of being consciously and compassionately in the present moment with another or with other, believing in and affirming their potential for wholeness, wherever they are in life” (p 12). This notion completely replaced my idea that the most important thing I could offer at my placement was help. I didn’t have to do things for the adults at the center to be an empowering presence. By existing with, one can create a space in where each identity is celebrated. Richard Gunderman brings light to this in his article, “Bringing Dementia Patients to Life.” Gunderman quotes Theresa Klein, an occupational therapist, “We need to avoid treating the Marthas of the world as just patients we do things to. We must never forget that they are also human beings we can do things with.” This is something I quickly began to integrate into my placement. My visits stopped centering around how I could help others and began focusing on how I can experience things with them. I also began to understand the power of listening. People with disabilities have been silenced so frequently, that listening to their voices can function as an act against an unjust system. Not only that, listening, really listening, is a way to connect to others. It gives individuals space to fully express their true self. In this way, I found how to merge my desire to do social work and my desire to connect on a personal level.

            Donna Deyhle speaks on the importance of listening in "Listening to Lives: Lessons Learned from American Indian Youth." Deyhle draws on Bell Hooks and Eve Tuck in order to emphasize the importance of desire-based work. Deyhle’s work eloquently links listening to identity. With this, I mean to say that by listening to the experiences of others, one also is acknowledging and respecting their identity. Listening also functions as a tool of unlearning. When listening, one stops using their biased assumptions to understand an individual and instead, they create an image of the individual using the own individual’s self identification. It is evident that listening has the power to undo the harming effects of silencing and marginalization. But this then brings me to ask, what would be the effect of shifting from “I am listening” to “we are listening”? I believe this is a way for the personal and the systemic to intersect. The idea of a collective listening allows for space in which the identities of a community are heard and appreciated and their desires are acknowledged and respected. In this sense, listening is essential to the creation of a desire-based space. Eve Tuck mentions, “desire is assembled, crafted over a lifetime through our experiences (…) This is what accounts for the multiplicity, complexity, and contradiction of desire, how desire reaches for contrasting realities, even simultaneously” (p. 418). This is crucial to understand: as listeners, the stories of others (their experiences, desires, feelings) will not always make sense to us. This does not mean that the narratives are not valid. Understanding the complexity of what it means to be human is an important part of creating an empowering space.

            This then brings me to my final point, what does it mean to empower? My definition has undergone several changes as the course and my placement progressed. I began with a definition that was mostly defined by social justice and then moved towards a more personal and nuanced definition that focused on relationships. I now define empowerment as the creation of a space that allows for identities to be expressed without fear of reprimand. This definition also encompasses the fact that identities are ever changed and incredibly detailed. It is crucial to not only accept someone’s “best” self, but their true self. This includes flaws, talents, pasts, future potential, mistakes, and so forth. This work is difficult; it requires compassion, patience, and love. The systems that surround us often persuade us away from these virtues; we have been socialized to be selfish. This definition of empowerment completely counters this. This is to say, even though my new definition is based on a more personal framework, it still has the power to do the hard social work that helps undo and unravel unjust oppression and subjugation.

Works Cited



Chamberlin, Judi. "A Working Definition of Empowerment." Psychiatric         Rehabilitation  Journal 20 (1997): 43-46. Web.

Deyhle, Donna. "Listening to Lives Lessons Learned from American Indian Youth." Honoring            our children: Culturally appropriate approaches for teaching Indigenous students (2013):   1-10. Web.

Gunderman, Richard. “Bringing Dementia Patients to Life.” The Atlantic, 2014. Web.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G., and Katha Politt. Writing a woman's life. WW Norton & Company       Incorporated, 2008. Web.

Hooks, Bell. All about Love: New Visions. New York: William Morrow, 2000. Print.


Miller, James E., and Susan C. Cutshall. The Art of Being a Healing Presence: A Guide           for        Those in Caring Relationships. Fort Wayne: Willowgreen Publishing, 2010. Print.

Tuck, Eve. “Suspending Damage: Letter to Communities”. Harvard Educational Review. Vol. 79.     No. 3. 2009. Web.

Tuck, Eve, and C. Ree. "A Glossary of haunting." Handbook of Autoethnography. SAGE       Publications. 2013. Web.